Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

The Balfour Declaration at 100: Remembering Its Prophetic Jewish Critics

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring - Summer 2017

Issued in London in 1917 — one hundred years ago — the Balfour Declaration  
is one of the important documents of the twentieth century. It committed  
Britain to supporting the establishment in Palestine of “a national home for  
the Jewish people,” and the consequences continue to be felt to this day.  
The story of the history of the Balfour Declaration is a complex one,  
involving many players, and many contradictory political machinations. It  
shows how Arab nationalists, backed by Britain, fought for their future,  
while Zionists battled diplomatically for influence in England, vigorously  
opposed by Jews who rejected Jewish nationalism. Unknown to either side,  
Prime Minister David Lloyd George was telling Turkey that she could keep her  
flag over the disputed territory if only she would agree to a separate  
In his book The Balfour Declaration, Professor Jonathan Schneer, a  
specialist in modern British history at Georgia Tech, notes that, at the  
very time the Balfour Declaration was announced, “… Britain’s prime minister  
and his agents were engaged in secret maneuverings to detach the Ottoman  
Empire from the Central Powers. They were offering, among other things, that  
the Turkish flag could continue to fly over Palestine. But the Zionists had  
long deemed Ottoman rule in Palestine to be one of their chief obstacles.  
Most of them viewed Turkish suzerainty, no matter how attenuated, as  
intolerable. Had the Turks accepted Lloyd George’s offer, most Zionists, and  
certainly their most important leaders, would have felt the British  
government had compromised, perhaps fatally, its recent pledge. In which  
case, no one today would pay much attention to the Balfour Declaration at  
Population of Palestine  
In the mid-19th century, the area corresponding to Palestine had about  
340,000 people, of whom 300,000 or 88 per cent were Muslim or Druze, 27,000  
or 8 per cent Christian, and 13,000 or 4 per cent Jews. By 1922, the  
population had grown to 752,048, of which Jews accounted for 83,900 or 11  
per cent. The increase in the Jewish population had been spurred by the  
Zionist movement in Europe, particularly in the Russian Pale of Settlement.  
Who lived in Palestine at the time of World War I? There were approximately  
700,000 residents, many of whom were descendants of the Canaanites, or  
Philistines, who gave the land its name, or from the Arabs, even from the  
ancient Hebrews. Dr. Schneer reports that, “They spoke Arabic, and most of  
them may be termed Arabs … The majority were Sunni Muslims … but some were  
Shiite Muslims.… There were as well Druze and other Christians, some of them  
European or of European descent, and Jews, some of whom were also European  
transplants or of European origin.”  
Since 1517, Palestine had been governed by the sultans of the Ottoman  
Empire. A main reason for the increasing pressure on the land in the early  
20th century, writes Schneer, “was the arrival in Palestine of a new and  
foreign element, although one that claimed an organic and ineradicable  
connection. They were European and Russian Jews, burning with the desire to  
live free, which they could not do in the countries of their birth. They  
were not themselves wealthy, but often they had wealthy patrons, and when  
land in the vicinity of Jaffa rose ten times in price over the decades, the  
patrons could afford to buy it while the fellah (indigenous Arabs) could  
Zionism a New Idea  
Zionism was a new idea, beginning to take shape in Eastern Europe in 1881,  
when Russian revolutionaries assassinated Tsar Alexander ll. His son  
Alexander III blamed the Jews. Immediately, he reimposed the anti-Semitic  
policies his father had relaxed. The Zionist movement held its initial  
congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897. Immigration to Palestine, with the  
idea of establishing a Jewish commonwealth of some kind, proceeded. In  
1914, as World War I began, Jews represented perhaps one-ninth of the  
population of Palestine. Just as Jewish nationalism was emerging,  
nationalist sentiment was growing among the Arabs. Movements opposed to  
Ottoman Turkish rule emerged prior to World War I. During the war, the  
British had capitalized on the existence of Arab nationalist sentiment by  
striking an agreement with Sharif Hussein, who led an Arab revolt against  
the Turks in support of British military operations in Palestine and Syria.  
In return for this support, Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in  
Egypt, promised Hussein, in what later became known as the Hussein-McMahon  
correspondence, British support for an Arab kingdom under his rule after the  
war. Such a kingdom did come into being briefly in 1919, but it was  
suppressed in 1920 by the French who asserted control over Lebanon and  
The promised Arab independence was to have taken place over an area whose  
boundaries are still a matter of dispute among historians today. One letter  
from McMahon left the impression that Palestine would be included in the  
area of Arab independence.  
While Zionists were engaged in negotiations about a Jewish homeland in  
Palestine, in London, the British and French in 1916 signed the secret  
Sykes-Picot Agreement which set aside Lebanon and Syria as areas of French  
interest while giving Britain a free hand in the region to the South. Thus,  
conflicting promises were being made in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence,  
the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Balfour Declaration, making Palestine  
what has been described as “the much-promised” land.  
Within England, Zionism had little support among British Jews. “Prewar  
indifference to Jewish nationalism was widespread,” notes Schneer, “the  
British public, including the vast majority of British Jews, shared it. Of  
300,000 Jews living in Britain in 1913, only 8,000 belonged to the Zionist  
organization. Of the 150,000 Jews living in London, fewer than 4,000 called  
themselves Zionists.”  
Immigrants from Eastern Europe  
Zionist leaders in London were largely immigrants from Eastern Europe. Most  
prominent was Chaim Weizmann, who took up a post at the University of  
Manchester in 1904. Six years later he became a naturalized British subject.  
In 1914, Zionists lacked easy entre to the Foreign Office. But a Jewish  
opponent of Zionism, Lucien Wolf, did have such access. Wolf was director of  
the Conjoint Foreign Committee of British Jews. It held that British Jews  
differed from their Quaker, Congregationalist and Catholic Britons only in  
the religious belief system to which they adhered. While Zionists contended  
that Jews were a distinct nation, this view was rejected by most British  
Jews, in particular the Anglo-Jewish Association, which declared that  
British Jews were Britons who happened to be Jewish by religion.  
The argument presented by Zionist leaders was that support for a Jewish  
homeland in Palestine would serve both British interests in World War I as  
well as its post-war imperial ambitions. In the case of World War l, the  
Zionists played on the often anti-Semitic notion that world Jewry  
constituted an extraordinarily influential power. Thus, support for a Jewish  
homeland in Palestine, it was argued, would cause American Jews to urge the  
U.S. to enter the war on Britain’s side. Such support, the Zionists  
declared, would cause Russian Jews to urge continued involvement in the war  
and it would cause German Jews to lessen their support for their country’s  
war effort.  
The Foreign Minister, Lord Balfour, was also influenced by his own religious  
views, which were shared by Prime Minister Lloyd George. In his book  
Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal, Milton Viorst reports  
that Balfour’s biographer, who was his niece, writes that, “I remember in  
childhood imbibing from him the idea that the Christian religion and  
civilization owed to Judaism an immeasurable debt, shamefully ill repaid.”  
In Parliament, Balfour stated that Britain’s sponsorship of the Jews’ return  
to their homeland is “the ideal which clearly moved me … proving that  
Christendom is not oblivious to its faith.”  
Jews Would Accept Jesus  
Viorst points out that, “Balfour held the conventional evangelical view that  
the Jews, on returning to Palestine, would accept Jesus as their savior …  
Religious commitment explains much about why England was so comfortable with  
Zionism and why Weizmann was so comfortable in England. Both Lloyd George  
and Balfour, as Old Testament believers, had a vision for Palestine. Lloyd  
George once told Weizmann that Palestine’s place names ‘were more familiar  
to me than those on the Western Front.’ Balfour stated that ‘the Jews are  
the most gifted race that mankind has seen since the Greeks … They have been  
exiled, scattered and oppressed … If we can find them an asylum in their  
native land … (even) the submerged Jews of the ghettoes of Eastern Europe  
will find a new and powerful identity.”  
A case has been made that Zionism was a Protestant idea, before it gathered  
any Jewish support. In his book What Is Modern Israel?, Professor Yakov  
Rabkin of the University of Montreal shows that the translation of the Bible  
into vernacular languages during the Reformation, and particularly into  
English, encouraged the belief that the concentration of the Jews in the  
Holy Land should be considered an event of extreme importance for  
Christianity. Such an occurrence would bring about the return of Jesus to  
earth, precipitating the Apocalypse and the ultimate triumph of  
Christianity. In the 18th century, Joseph Priestley, a prominent scientist  
and inventor, attempted to convince British rabbi David Levi to organize a  
transfer of Jews to Palestine. The rabbi rejected the idea of reinstating  
the Jews in the Holy Land by material means and affirmed that the Jews must  
accomplish their mission in their countries of residence.  
The historian Barbara Tuchman, in her book Bible and Sword, presents the  
case that Protestant reformers who led England’s breakaway from the Catholic  
Church in the Middle Ages substituted the Old Testament for the Papacy as  
the source of divine authority. Through it, many in England internalized  
God’s promise to deliver Palestine to the Jews. “The promise,” writes Milton  
Viorst, “embedded in the British spirit, inspired Lord Palmerston to propose  
an English Protectorate over Palestine’s Jews 75 years earlier. Weizmann’s  
triumph was to persuade Britain that its embrace not just of Jews but of  
Zionism would help the British win the war.”  
In the 19th century, an Anglican priest, John Nelson Darby, launched the  
Christian proto-Zionist movement, where he formulated a doctrine that he  
termed “dispensationalism.” Drawing on a literal reading of three biblical  
verses, he affirmed that the Second Coming of Christ was possible only if  
the land of Israel belonged exclusively to the Jews.  
For a variety of reasons, the British Government embraced the Zionist  
enterprise. Within Britain’s Jewish community, the debate became  
increasingly heated. Zionists insisted that Jews constituted a distinct  
nationality. Jews who opposed Zionism insisted that Jews shared a religion,  
and nothing more. As liberals, they held the idea of special privileges for  
their co-religionists in Palestine, or anywhere else, as anathema. Claude  
Montefiore, president of the Anglo-Jewish Association, asked rhetorically in  
The Edinburgh Review for April 1917, “How can a man belong to two nations at  
once?” No man, he declared, could belong equally and simultaneously to two  
nations. One who tried opened himself to the charge of divided loyalties.  
“No wonder that all anti-Semites are enthusiastic Zionists.”  
Led by Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu, who insisted that Jews be  
regarded as a religious community and himself as a Jewish Englishman, the  
anti-Zionist Jews fought the establishment of any Jewish nation. They  
maintained that it would have the effect of “stamping Jews as strangers in  
their native land and undermining their hard won position as citizens and  
nationals of those lands.”  
The British Cabinet records of 1915 to 1920, made public by the British  
government only in 1970, contained many references to the Balfour  
Declaration, including three memoranda by Montagu, the sole Jewish Cabinet  
Member, which reveal his foresightedness.  
Montagu, in a memorandum circulated to other Cabinet members, used the term  
“anti-Semitism” to characterize the sponsors of Zionism’s charter. The  
document of Aug. 23, 1917 titled “The Anti-Semitism of the Present  
Government,” and marked “Secret” is, in many ways, prophetic.  
It reads, in part: “I have chosen the above title … not in any hostile  
sense, not by any means quarreling with an anti-Semitic view, which may be  
held by my colleagues, not with a desire to deny that anti-Semitism can be  
held by rational men, not even with a view to suggesting that the Government  
is deliberately anti-Semitic, but I wish to place on record my view that the  
policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic in result and will prove  
a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country of the world.”  
A “Mischievous Creed”  
In Montagu’s view, “Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous  
political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom.  
If a Jewish Englishman sets his eyes on the Mount of Olives and longs for  
the day when he will shake British soil from his shoes and go back to  
agricultural pursuits in Palestine, he has always seemed to me to have  
acknowledged aims inconsistent with British citizenship and to have admitted  
that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain or to be  
treated as an Englishman.”  
Montagu makes clear his view with regard to the question of nationality: “I  
assert that there is not a Jewish nation … It is no more true to say that a  
Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation … I  
deny that Palestine is today associated with the Jews. It is quite true that  
Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern  
Mohammedan history, and, after the time of the Jews, surely it plays a  
larger part than any other country in Christian history … the Government  
should be prepared to do everything in their power to obtain for Jews in  
Palestine complete Liberty of settlement and life on an equality with the  
inhabitants of that country who profess other religious beliefs. I would ask  
that the Government should go no further.”  
These views were widely held by anti-Zionist Jews. Lucien Wolf discussed the  
fundamental premise of Zionism: “The idea of Jewish nationality, the talk of  
a Jew ‘going home’ to Palestine if he is not content with the land of his  
birth, strikes at the root of all claims to Jewish citizenship in lands  
where Jewish disabilities still exist. It is the assertion not merely of a  
double nationality … but of the perpetual alienate of Jews everywhere  
outside Palestine.”  
As time went on, the British Government, for its own reasons with regard to  
the war and its post-war imperial ambitions, saw reasons to embrace the  
Zionist enterprise, at least up to a point. The British and French, in  
effect, began dividing the Ottoman Empire before the war was concluded. Both  
the Zionists and the Arabs thought they had British support for their  
ultimate goals. What is clear is that the indigenous Arab population of  
Palestine was of little concern to either Zionist or British leaders. When  
Zionist spokesman Nahum Solokow was asked by the British how the Jews would  
organize themselves in Palestine, he responded that they would establish  
themselves the same way as the French and English had established themselves  
in Canada, or the Boers in South Africa, simply by settling the land.  
Sokolow made no mention of the Arabs already living in Palestine.  
Hostility toward Arabs  
According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, the early Zionist settlers  
referred to the indigenous Arabs as “mules” and “behaved like lords and  
masters, some apparently resorting to the whip at the slightest provocation,  
a major source of Arab animosity.” The Russian Jewish writer and philosopher  
Ahad Ha’am wrote in 1891 that the settlers “behaved toward the Arabs with  
hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly upon their boundaries, beat them  
shamefully and even boast about it.” He reported in 1893 that, “The  
attitudes of the colonists to their tenants and their families is exactly  
the same as towards their animals … We are accustomed to believing … that  
the Arabs are desert savages, a people like donkeys, and they neither see  
nor understand what is happening around them. But that is a great mistake.”  
Ha’am surmised that aggressive settler attitudes stemmed from anger “toward  
those who reminded them that there is still another people in the land of  
Israel that have been living there and does not intend to leave.”  
The Zionists had contempt for Palestine’s Arab residents. In a letter to  
Lord Balfour from Jerusalem, Chaim Weizmann complained that the Arabs he met  
were “clever and quick-witted, but treacherous by nature.” In a report to  
British army intelligence, he called them “a demoralized race with whom it  
is impossible to treat.” Lord Balfour understood the problem of reconciling  
British policy on Zionism with the pledges which had been made to the Arabs.  
He also recognized the need to accommodate the Declaration to the self-  
determination promised by President Woodrow Wilson. Of the conflicting  
claims before him, Zionism was closest to Balfour’s heart. He said that  
Zionist preeminence was “rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in  
future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of  
700,000 Arabs.”  
Lord Curzon, the representative of the House of Lords in the War Cabinet,  
who would succeed Balfour as Foreign Secretary in 1919, opposed the  
Declaration. He charged that the term “national home” was dangerously  
ambiguous and would commit Britain to creating a Jewish state in a land that  
“already has an indigenous population of its own of a different race.” The  
Arabs who lived there, Curzon warned, “would not be content either to be  
expropriated for Jewish immigration or to act as renewers of wood or drawers  
of water for the latter.”  
According to George Kidston, who served in the Middle East Division of the  
Foreign Office, Balfour promised Palestine to the Zionists “irrespective of  
the wishes of the great bulk of the population, because it is historically  
right and politically expedient that Balfour should do so. The idea that  
carrying out these programs will entail bloodshed and military repression  
never seems to have occurred to him.”  
Rejecting Self-determination  
Balfour understood very well that by embracing Zionism he was rejecting the  
principle of self-determination for the people of Palestine. In 1919,  
Balfour wrote to Lloyd George: “The weak point of our position, of course,  
is that in the case of Palestine, we deliberately and rightly decline to  
accept the principle of self-determination. If the present inhabitants were  
consulted they would unquestionably give an anti-Jewish verdict.”  
Although Britain’s anti-Zionist Jewish leaders were unable to prevent the  
Balfour Declaration, the efforts of their spokesman in the British War  
Cabinet bore fruit in the final wording: “His Majesty’s Government view with  
favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish  
people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of  
this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which  
may prejudice civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities  
in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any  
other country.”  
The safeguarding clauses protecting the status of Jews outside Palestine  
were important limitations upon the grant to the Zionists, making the  
Declaration conditional — and not a blank check.  
Many Jewish voices in Britain expressed their opposition to Zionism and to  
the Balfour Declaration. Rabbi Claude Montefiore, president of the Anglo-  
Jewish Association, declared: “Zionism and Zionistic activities not only  
depress Judaism by putting nationality first and religion second, but they  
injure Judaism by combining religion and nationality.” The President of the  
Jewish Board of Deputies, wrote a letter to The Times stating that, “Zionist  
theory regards the Jewish communities of the world as constituting one  
homeless nationality incapable of complete social and political  
identification with the nations among whom they dwell and it is argued that  
for this homeless nationality a political center and an always available  
homeland in Palestine are necessary. Against this theory we strongly and  
earnestly protest.”  
League of British Jews  
Less than a week after the Balfour Declaration was issued, writes Peter  
Brownfeld in ISSUES (Fall 2001), “Claude Montefiore and his colleagues  
organized a group of their sympathizers at New Court, the headquarters of  
the Rothschild concerns. The assembly agreed to establish a ‘League of  
British Jews.’ A provisional committee was elected, office space was  
obtained and a campaign plan agreed upon. In its announcement to the press,  
the League proclaimed its determination to combat the Zionist caveat that  
‘the Jew is an alien in the land of his birth.’ It called upon all Jewish  
Britons, regardless of their place of birth, to support its platform: ‘To  
uphold the status of British subjects professing the Jewish religion. To  
resist the allegation that Jews constitute a separate Political Nationality.  
To facilitate the settlement of Palestine of such Jews as may desire to make  
Palestine their home.’ … The League vigorously maintained that Judaism was  
a religion, not a nationality …”  
A prominent voice for Jewish universalism was Rabbi Israel Mattuck, at that  
time the leader of Reform Judaism in Britain. In his book What Are The  
Jews?, Mattuck argues that the distinctiveness of the Jews is religious, not  
national: “… the dispersion of the Jews, which gives them universality,  
helps both its realization and expression. It is a condition of their  
religious value that they remain distinctive and dispersed … By its very  
nature, religion tends to universalism. There have been national religions.  
All religions began in tribalism. But religion long ago outgrew its  
nationalist swaddling-clothes. Judaism cast them off at least 26 centuries  
ago — in the time of Isaiah, Amos and Micah … The genius of the Jews is a  
genius for religion, the contribution of the Jews to the life of humanity  
has been in the field of religion. The chief argument against Zionism is  
that the nationalization of Jewish life would interfere with the religious  
function and value of the Jews … When the Zionist answers: ‘But it will save  
the Jews,’ the non-Zionist asks, ‘Save them for what?’ To be a small nation  
in a small corner of the world! Is that to be the issue of Jewish history,  
its struggles and achievements, its sufferings and glories? How small,  
insignificantly pathetically small, is the result of the process?”  
In the U.S., Jewish opposition to the Balfour Declaration was widespread. In  
1919, a petition was presented to President Woodrow Wilson entitled  
“Statement to the Peace Conference.” It reflected the then dominant  
opposition of most American Jews to Zionism and its claim on Palestine.  
Those signing included Rep. Julius Klein of California; Henry Morgenthau,  
Sr., former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey; Simon W. Rosendale, former Attorney  
General of New York; Mayor L.H. Kempner of Galveston, Texas; E.M. Baker,  
president of the New York Stock Exchange; R.H. Macy’s Jesse L. Straus; New  
York Times publisher Adolph Ochs; Judge M.C. Sloss of San Francisco, and  
professors Edwin S. Seligman of Columbia University and Morris Jastrow of  
the University of Pennsylvania. President Wilson brought the petition with  
him to the peace conference.  
Efforts to Segregate Jews  
The petition criticized Zionist efforts to segregate Jews “as a political  
unit … in Palestine or elsewhere” and underlined the principle of equal  
rights for all citizens of any state “irrespective of creed or ethnic  
descent.” It rejected Jewish nationalism as a general concept and held  
against the founding of any state upon the basis of religion and/or race.  
The petition asserted that the “overwhelming bulk of the Jews of America,  
England, France, Italy, Holland, Switzerland and other lands of freedom have  
no thought whatever of surrendering their citizenship in those lands in  
order to resort to a ‘Jewish homeland in Palestine.’”  
The rejection of Jewish nationalism is reiterated in the petition. Point 5  
makes this clear: “We object to the political segregation of the Jews  
because it is an error to assume that the bond uniting them is of a national  
character. They are bound by two factors: First, the bond of common  
religious beliefs and aspirations and, secondly, the bonds of common  
traditions, customs and experiences largely, alas, of common trials and  
sufferings. Nothing in their status suggests that they form in any real  
sense a separate nationalistic unit.”  
With regard to the future of Palestine, the petitioners state: “It is our  
fervent hope that what was once a ‘promised land’ for the Jews may become ‘a  
land of promise’ for all races and creeds, safeguarded by the League of  
Nations which, it is expected, will be one of the fruits of the Peace  
Conference … We ask that Palestine be constituted as a free and independent  
state to be governed under a democratic form of government recognizing no  
distinction of creed or race or ethnic descent, and with adequate power to  
protect the country, against oppression of any kind. We do not wish to see  
Palestine, either now or at any time in the future, organized as a Jewish  
In his autobiography, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., who served as U.S. Ambassador  
to Turkey, stated that, “Zionism is the most stupendous fallacy in Jewish  
history. It is wrong in principle and impossible of realization, it is  
unsound in its economics, fantastical in its politics and sterile in its  
spiritual ideals. I speak as a Jew.”  
Ties between Jews Are Spiritual  
In a speech at the Menorah Society dinner in Dec. 1917, Chief Judge Irving  
Lehman, brother of New York Governor Herbert H. Lehman, declared: “I cannot  
recognize that the Jews as such constitute a nation in any sense in which  
that word is recognized in political science, or that a national basis is a  
possible concept for modern Judaism. We Jews in America, bound to the Jews  
of other lands by our common faith, constituting our common inheritance,  
cannot as American citizens feel any bond to them as members of a nation,  
for nationally we are Americans and Americans only, and in political and  
civic matters we cannot recognize any other ties. We must therefore look for  
the maintenance of Judaism to those spiritual concepts which constitute  
When it comes to the contradiction between the Balfour Declaration and  
President Wilson’s belief in the “self-determination” of all peoples in the  
post-World War I world, at a meeting of the Council of Ten held in Paris on  
May 22, 1919, Wilson declared he “had never been able to see by what right  
France and Great Britain gave this country (Syria) away to anyone.”  
The President favored sending a Commission of inquiry to ascertain the  
wishes of the people of Syria, Palestine and Iraq. But the British,  
following the lead of the French, backed away from this idea, and the Four  
Power Inquiry never took place. In 1919, President Wilson dispatched Oberlin  
College President Dr. Henry C. King and industrialist Charles R. Crane as  
the American section of the International Commission on the Mandates in  
The findings of the King-Crane Commission, based on a six-week inquiry in  
the areas concerned, were withheld from the public until late Dec. 1922,  
after the provisions of the peace treaty had been established. It was only  
then that the ailing Wilson gave permission for the full publication of the  
report. The findings made it clear why Balfour, the Zionists and the French  
all opposed any inquiry into the Middle East. The American commissioners  
reported: “No British officer consulted by the Commissioners believed that  
the Zionist program could be carried out except by force of arms … only a  
greatly reduced Zionist program should be attempted by the Peace Conference  
and then only very gradually initiated.”  
New Recommendations  
The Commission proposed that one mandate be established for all of Syria,  
including Palestine, within which Lebanon should be given autonomy, and  
recommended that Faisal be made King of Syria with another Arab ruler to be  
found for Iraq. Noting that while they had been predisposed to Zionism at  
the start, the Commissioners called for a serious modification of the  
Zionist program of unlimited immigration, looking to Jewish statehood: “The  
actual facts of Palestine coupled with the force of the general principles  
proclaimed by the Allies and accepted by the Syrians” had driven them to new  
Regarding the Balfour Declaration, King and Crane wrote: “A national home is  
not equivelant to making Palestine a Jewish state nor can the erection of  
such a Jewish state be accomplished without the gravest trespass upon civil  
and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.”  
Nine tenths of the population of Palestine, the Commission reported, were  
against the entire Zionist program. “To subject the people so minded to  
unlimited Jewish immigration and to steady financial and social pressure to  
surrender the land would be a gross violation” of Wilsonian principles, they  
wrote, “and of the people’s rights, though it be kept within the forms of  
As we know, the recommendations of the King-Crane Commission were ignored  
and the Zionist enterprise proceeded. Two days after the publication of the  
Balfour Declaration, William Yale of the U.S. State Department was reporting  
that “the Syrians have held meetings in protest against Zionism to all the  
Allies, and the younger and more hot-headed among the Moslems are laying  
plans for the future that bode no good for the peace of Palestine.”  
Growing Cynicism  
The cynicism surrounding the Balfour Declaration took many forms. Through  
his emissaries, Lloyd George offered the Turks, among other inducements,  
that their flag continue to fly over Palestine if they would make a separate  
peace, even as other British officials were promising the Zionists and Arabs  
that the Ottomans and their flag would be expelled from the Middle East  
Shortly after the Balfour Declaration was announced, the Syrian leaders  
dispatched a telegram to Balfour: “With reference to the recent publication  
of your Excellency’s Declaration to Lord Rothschild regarding the Jews in  
Palestine, we respectfully take the liberty to invite your Excellency’s  
attention to the fact that Palestine forms a vital part of Syria — as the  
heart is to the body — admitting of no separation politically or  
sociologically, more especially as Palestine is looked upon both by Islam  
and Christendom as the Polar star and birthplace of their religious ideals  
as much as by Jewry.”  
To such objections, the British always replied that the Balfour Declaration  
specifically protected the rights of non-Jews in Palestine. But in 1917,  
Prof. Schneer notes, “Arabs outnumbered Jews there by six or seven to one. A  
promise to protect the vast majority from a tiny minority seemed upside down  
to them. And British officials sometimes grew impatient with expressions of  
Arab unease. When he learned of the Syrian telegram to Balfour, General  
Clayton called its authors to a meeting. He told them ‘the Zionists were  
very powerful … Throughout the world the Jews controlled the capital … In  
their determination to obtain Palestine as a Home for the Jews they would  
undoubtedly succeed.’ So he advised that Arabs had better cooperate when the  
Zionists arrived in Palestine … During World War I, then, Britain and the  
allies slew the Ottoman dragon in the Middle East. By their policies, they  
sowed dragon’s teeth. Armed men rose up from the ground. They are rising  
Milton Viorst points out that, “… the Balfour Declaration contained no  
reference to a Jewish state. Most of its British supporters saw the  
declaration as an instrument for winning the war and rallying foreign Jews  
to the Allied cause. Few Britons intended it as the prelude to statehood.  
Balfour and Lloyd George were aware, of course, that a sovereign state was  
Zionism’s aim despite its more modest claims. But even after the Declaration  
was issued, the Zionists, to avoid controversy, routinely denied statehood  
ambitions. Weizmann revealed no concern about how in the Zionist’s society  
the Arabs might fit in … While many British and even a few Jews were by now  
becoming more sensitive to the problem of the Arab’s place in a Zionist  
society, Weizmann shrugged it off … In his mind the challenge of reaching an  
accommodation with the Arabs took a backseat — far back — to the goal of  
assuring Jewish rule.”  
Misleading Statements  
In his statements to the Arabs, Weizmann was misleading, at best. He told  
Arab leaders that he looked forward to two communities working harmoniously  
to develop the country. He promised not to intrude on Arab property rights  
or holy places. At a dinner given by the grand mufti, Weizmann declared:  
“There is land enough in Palestine to sustain a population many times larger  
than the present one, and all the fears expressed openly and secretly by the  
Arabs, that they are to be ousted from their present position, are due … to  
a fundamental misconception of our aims and intentions.” Jewish immigration,  
he declared would “benefit both peoples.” Weizmann showed little  
understanding of Arab grievances and concerns and seemed unaware that Arab  
nationalism had grown stronger as the Turks retreated and President Wilson’s  
pledges of freedom and self-determination spread.  
Seen in its historical context, the Balfour Declaration seems very much a  
part of Britain’s colonial and imperial tradition. In his book, Israel: A  
Colonial Settler State, the French Jewish historian Maxime Rodinson writes  
that, “Wanting to create a purely Jewish or predominantly Jewish state, in  
Arab Palestine in the 20th century could not help but lead to a colonial-  
type situation and to development of a racist state of mind, and in the  
final analysis, to a military confrontation.”  
In Rodinson’s view, the colonization by the Zionists seemed “perfectly  
natural” given the atmosphere of the time: “Herzl’s plan unquestionably fit  
into the great movement of European expansion of the 19th and 20th  
centuries, the great European imperialist groundswell.”  
From the beginning, Zionists referred to Palestine as “empty” and as “a land  
without people for a people without land.” Max Nordau, co-founder of the  
World Zionist Organization, wrote in 1902 how the Zionists “desire to  
irrigate with their own sweat and to till with their hands a country that is  
today a desert, until it again becomes the blooming garden it once was.”  
“Invisibility of the Arabs”  
As Anton La Guardia put it, “The invisibility of the Arabs was self-serving.  
Palestine at the time of the first Zionist settlement was not empty of  
people, but of people deemed worthy by Europeans of controlling their own  
country.” The intrinsic superiority of the Jewish claim to the land was a  
belief shared by many British politicians, including Winston Churchill, who  
would serve as Secretary of State for the colonies. Testifying before the  
Peel Commission in 1937, he declared, “I do not admit that the dog in the  
manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there  
for a long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit, for instance,  
that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black  
people of Australia. I do not admit that wrong has been done to these people  
by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, or, at any rate, a  
more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come and taken their place.”  
Also testifying before the Peel Commission was David Ben-Gurion, who would  
later become Israel’s first prime minister. He declared that aside from the  
Jews, “there is no other race or nation as a whole which regards this  
country as its homeland.”  
In his book Popular Resistance in Palestine, Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, professor at  
Bethlehem and Bir Zeit Universities, reports that. “Jews in Palestine in  
1917 represented less than 7 per cent of the population, most of them were  
not Zionists and they owned less than 2 per cent of the privately owned  
land. By the end of British rule, they represented nearly a third of the  
population and owned nearly 7 per cent of the land. The success must be  
credited not only to the Zionist movement but to the British elite’s  
interests. Many British were far more comfortable working with English-  
speaking European Jews than trying to understand and deal with the local  
inhabitants … Tellingly, when Allenby delivered his first speech in  
Jerusalem, he mentioned completion of the cycle of the Crusades.”  
Professor Avi Shlaim, an Israeli who now heads the Middle East Center at St.  
Antony’s College at Oxford University, calls the Balfour Declaration “a  
classic colonial document.” He points to the fact that, “Today, Israel  
controls 90 per cent of mandatory Palestine and the Palestinians are still  
stateless. There are many reasons for the Nakba, the catastrophe that  
overwhelmed the Palestinian people.” Interestingly, Avi Shlaim is married to  
the great-granddaughter of David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister at the  
time of the Balfour Declaration. In 2016, after a lecture at the University  
of London, Shlaim was asked if the creation of Israel in 1948 represented  
the same kind of “colonialism” he saw in the Balfour Declaration. He said  
that in his view it did and added, “Fifteen years ago I would not have said  
Settler-Colonial Movement  
Another Israeli historian teaching in Britain, Professor Ilan Pappe, who is  
director of the European Center for Palestine Studies at the University of  
Exeter, argues that, “Zionism is not a national movement. It’s a settler  
colonialist movement. The Palestinians, before they become a nation, they  
are first and foremost the native indigenous people of Palestine, who  
sometimes chose nationalism as the best vehicle to defend their native  
indigenous rights, and probably would have to find a different vehicle in  
the 21st century to protect their rights — much more an agenda of human  
rights and civil rights.”  
In his 2006 book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Dr. Pappe describes how  
the Palestinians were removed from land Israel sought to control. In 1948,  
he writes, Israel expelled half of Palestine’s population, demolished half  
of Palestine’s villages, and destroyed almost all the Palestinian towns  
except for Nazareth. He says that this policy continues at the present  
time: “The Israelis perfected the notion of ethnic cleansing and adapted it  
to the 21st century much better than any other political movement that I  
know in history. For instance, they found out that actually you can achieve  
the same goal of having a space without people in it by not allowing people  
to leave the place in which they live. You don’t have to expel people from  
villages. You can enclave them. You can siege them in villages and you get  
the same result; namely you don’t have demographically to include the  
enclaves, imprisoned, incarcerated people in your demographic balance, which  
is the most important thing for a settler colonial state.”  
In October 2016, the official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported the  
start of a year-long campaign to commemorate one hundred years since what it  
called the “crime” of the Balfour Declaration. Calling the declaration a  
“colonialist project,” Taysir Khalid, a member of the executive committee of  
the PLO, said the new Palestinian effort was intended “to remind the world  
and particularly Britain that they should face their historic responsibility  
and to atone for the big crime Britain had committed against the Palestinian  
Anniversary Events  
The first in a series of events to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour  
Declaration was held in the British Houses of Parliament in November 2016  
and was attended by a number of British lawmakers, Israeli Ambassador to the  
United Kingdom Mark Regev and former Israeli Foreign Ministry director-  
general Dore Gold. British Prime Minister Theresa May, in a September 2016  
greeting ahead of the Jewish New Year, hailed the Balfour Declaration as an  
expression of the “United Kingdom’s support for the establishment of a  
national home for the Jewish people.”  
In February 2017, the Balfour Apology Campaign, run by a Palestinian human  
rights group, launched a petition on the British Parliament website calling  
on Britain to “openly apologize to the Palestinian people for issuing the  
Balfour Declaration. The colonial policy of Britain between 1917-1948 led to  
a mass displacement of the Palestinian nation.”  
In April, the Foreign Office posted a response to the petition, which at  
that point had gained more than 13,000 online signatures. If the petition  
passes 100,000 signatures, it will be debated in Parliament. The official  
response defends the Balfour Declaration but admits that the rights of non-  
Jewish residents of Palestine could have been better protected: “The Balfour  
Declaration is an historic statement for which Her Majesty’s Government does  
not intend to apologize. We are proud of our role in creating the state of  
Israel. The task now is to encourage moves toward peace. The Declaration was  
written in a world of competing imperial powers and in the midst of the  
First World War and in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire. In that context,  
establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land in which they had  
such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to  
do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution … Much  
has happened since 1917. We recognize that the Declaration should have  
called for the protection of political rights of the non-Jewish communities  
in Palestine, particularly their right to self-determination. However, the  
important thing is to look forward and establish security and justice for  
both Israelis and Palestinians through a lasting peace.” The response  
reaffirmed Britain’s support for a two-state solution with Jerusalem “as the  
shared capital of both states, and a just, fair, agreed and realistic  
settlement for refugees.”  
Lawsuit against British Government  
Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian ambassador in London, said that unless  
Britain apologized, canceled planned celebrations and recognized a  
Palestinian state, the Palestinians would go ahead with plans for a lawsuit  
against the British government for issuing the Balfour Declaration. “This is  
the only condition upon which we can close this file permanently,”  
Hassassian said. Palestinians have long condemned the document as a promise  
by Britain to hand over land that it did not own. At the Arab summit in  
Jordan in March, Palestinian leader Muhammed Abbas called the Balfour  
Declaration “sinister.”  
If the Balfour Declaration had a dramatic impact upon Palestinians, the  
success of Zionism in creating a Jewish state also had an important impact  
upon Judaism. Its Jewish critics warned that Zionism was contrary to  
Judaism’s traditional religious values and rejected the idea of a sovereign  
Jewish state in the Middle East. In fact, the Zionist notion of “Jewish  
nationality” Is contrary to traditional Jewish thinking. Jehiel Jacob  
Weisberg, a Lithuanian rabbinical authority, pointed out that, “Jewish  
nationality is different from that of all nations in the sense that it is  
uniquely spiritual, and that its spirituality is nothing but The Torah.’”  
To the question of whether Jews constitute “a people,” Yeshayahu Leibowitz,  
the Orthodox Jewish thinker and Hebrew University professor, provides this  
assessment: “The historical Jewish people was defined neither as a race, nor  
as a people that speaks the same language, but as the people of Torah  
Judaism and its commandments … The words spoken by … Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-  
942) more than a thousand years ago: ‘Our nation exists only within the  
Torah’ have not only a normative, but also an empirical meaning. They  
testified to a historical reality whose power could be felt up until the  
19th century. It was then that the fracture, which has not ceased to widen  
with time, first occurred: the fissure between Jewishness and Judaism.”  
Part of 19th Century Nationalism  
The movement which led to the Balfour Declaration and, later, the creation  
of the state of Israel, was an intrinsic part of 19th century nationalism  
and the colonialism which dominated European policy, not traditional Jewish  
thinking. In fact, writes Professor Yakov Rabkin, “… a mere handful of  
assimilated Jews in Central Europe invented Jewish nationalism in the second  
half of the 19th century. Frustrated, despite their best efforts as  
individuals to assimilate, these Jews did not feel entirely accepted by  
their non-Jewish environment. As a remedy to their frustration they sought  
collective assimilation: to become a nation like all other nations … Their  
movement, which took the name of Zionism, touched off a profound sense of  
rejection among the majority of Jews.”  
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, leader of modern Orthodoxy in Germany,  
encouraged Jews to integrate into the surrounding society. In Hirsch’s view,  
Jewish nationalism could only be a transcendent idea, contingent neither on  
possession of land, nor upon political sovereignty. “The Torah does not  
exist for the state but the state for the Torah,” he declared. In the midst  
of Europe, rife with many varieties of nationalism, Hirsch was restating the  
classic concept that, “The Torah, and only the Torah, makes the Jews a  
collective entity.”  
The distinguished rabbi and academic Arthur Hertzberg, in his book Jews: The  
Essence and Character of a People (written with Aron Hirt-Manheimer) argues  
that the Zionist idea of making Jews a “normal” people is a rejection of the  
very uniqueness of Judaism and the Jewish mission: “The Jew … lives in two  
dimensions — the now and the forever … Jews have lived within changing and  
often tragic circumstances, but their religion has lifted them to another  
realm in which nothing changes. The holy days and the commandments that Jews  
observe are timeless. Historical events are fleeting. The Zionist settlement  
in Palestine is no more important to the continuity of Judaism than the  
revolt against Rome or the expulsion from Spain or the pogroms in Russia …  
Chronology is irrelevant in the study of Torah, all of its divine teachings  
and interpretations are external values and transcend time.”  
What Does God Expect of Jews  
Rabbi Hertzberg was not worried about “Jewish survival” and believed that  
what Jews should be asking is not how to perpetuate the Jewish people, but  
what God expects of them. If God still has some role for Jews to play, they  
will, in some mysterious way, find themselves able to do it. If there is no  
belief in God, or in Judaism’s uniqueness, there will be no Jews.  
One hundred years after the Balfour Declaration, it is becoming increasingly  
clear that the Jewish nationalist movement which promoted it had not only  
turned its back on the Jewish spiritual tradition, but, by ignoring the  
rights of the indigenous population of Palestine, on Western principles of  
democracy and self-determination as well. It has also transformed Judaism in  
our own country and in doing so has alienated a growing number of American  
Today, we see Israeli flags in many synagogues and Jewish groups calling  
upon American Jews to “make aliyah” — emigrate to Israel. It seems that a  
form of idolatry has been embraced, making Israel a virtual object of  
worship, replacing God, much like the golden calf in the Bible. Judaism has  
been corrupted by this politicization. Thus, it is not only Palestinians who  
have been the victims of this enterprise, but Jewish moral and ethical  
values as well. The Jewish tradition, although many today seem not to be  
aware of it, believes that all men and women, of every race and nation, are  
created in the image of God and deserve to be treated humanely. What happens  
to Palestinians, as a result, is no less important than what happens to  
Remembering the Forgotten Jewish Voices on 1917  
The one hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration should be a time  
when we reclaim the often forgotten Jewish voices of 1917 and beyond who  
warned against moving forward with this enterprise. They recognized, as more  
and more American Jews are recognizing today, that Zionism was never  
integral to Judaism but was, in fact, a departure from it. It is time to  
celebrate the vision of those who believed that Jews were meant to be equal  
citizens, making safe and secure Jewish homes in the nations of the world.  
This, it is often forgotten, was the vision of American Jews from the  
beginning. In 1841, Rabbi Gustav Poznanski of Charleston, South Carolina,  
declared at the dedication of America’s first Reform temple, that, “This  
country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our  
temple.” Most American Jews share this sentiment. This outlook and their  
belief in equal rights for all citizens may help us to find a way back, out  
of the current dilemma created by Zionist thinking, and embodied in the  
Balfour Declaration. •  
Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and serves as Editor  
of ISSUES and Associate Editor of THE LINCOLN REVIEW. The author of five  
books, he has served on the staff of the U.S. Senate, House of  
Representatives and the Office of the Vice President.

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.